Al-Anon helped her to recognize that she was enabling her husband's destructive behavior, but did she have the resolve to leave him—even for his own good?
- Posted on Jul 26, 2018
Midnight on New Year’s Eve. I was in a rental car in Denver, Colorado. My 10-year-old son, Rylan, was sitting beside me. A flurry of fireworks exploded in the sky above us. Rylan gazed up with tired eyes. It was late, and we’d just gotten off a plane from Washington State, where we’d been visiting my parents.
My husband, Heath, should have been at the airport to pick us up. We lived 70 miles away in Estes Park, a small town at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Heath was in jail. He’d been arrested for stealing copper from construction sites, where he worked as a heavy equipment operator. He sold the copper to pay for drugs. He’d called from jail while Rylan and I were on our way to the airport in Washington.
A meth addict. That’s what Heath was. Dropping Rylan and me off at the start of our trip, he’d given us big hugs and assured me he’d be fine. He couldn’t join us because he had to work. Or so he said.
I should have known better. Heath had been abusing drugs on and off since before I met him, though it took me—so naive!—a long time to figure that out. He’d spent most of our marriage promising to get clean, relapsing and promising again, begging me to believe him.
Now, heading out of Denver on the interstate, I knew I had a decision to make. Heath wanted me to bail him out. He expected to see me at the jail in the morning. He’d sounded frightened and confused on the phone. “I can explain everything,” he’d said. “This’ll never happen again, I swear.” I glanced over at Rylan, who was now asleep. Heath was his father. My husband. The thought of breaking up our family was unthinkable. Or it had been until now. We couldn’t keep going on like this.
What made it all even harder was that, when he was sober, Heath was a wonderful man. Funny. Charismatic. Loving. Devoted to his mother and grandmother. A great dad to Rylan—when he was around.
We’d met in our twenties, after I moved to Estes Park for an elementary school teaching job. I’m from Wisconsin. The beauty of Colorado took my breath away. I wanted to be outside all the time. Heath loved the outdoors too—hiking, fishing and hunting.
I liked him the second I saw him at a music club. He was cute, a funny dancer, but he didn’t seem to care what people thought. The two of us hit it off and started dating. Soon we were living together and I got pregnant. Heath was ecstatic.
I had a different reaction. I knew I should want to marry Heath. I loved him and could tell he loved me. We lived together. We were going to have a child together.
But something felt wrong, and I couldn’t bring myself to commit. Heath wasn’t the most reliable guy. I knew he worked in construction, and he always seemed to have steady income. But his hours were irregular. He never had pay stubs. Some nights he’d come home late, and the reasons he gave sounded implausible. Suspicious, even.
He’d done a lot of partying in high school and college, but he swore those days were behind him. Still, some part of me didn’t fully trust Heath. Though I loved him, I held something back. Not long after Rylan was born, I was doing laundry when I found something in one of Heath’s jacket pockets.
A small glass tube with a globe on one end. I had no idea what it was. I didn’t ask Heath; instead, I showed it to a friend the next day. She didn’t know either, but her teenage son did.
“That’s a meth pipe,” he said.
I confronted Heath. He was defensive but then broke down and admitted he smoked meth. He’d tried it in college and still did it sometimes.
“But I’m not an addict!” he protested. “I can stop. I will stop.”
I was so scared, I told Heath to move out anyway and took Rylan with me for a few months to Wisconsin, where my dad and stepmom lived. I told Heath we were done—and definitely not getting married—until he was clean.
I thought for sure his love for me and Rylan would motivate him to give up the drugs. But Heath seemed to get worse. Once we were back in Estes Park, he drifted in and out of our lives, sometimes sober, sometimes not. My parents kept telling me to let him go for good, but how could I do that to the father of my son? Plus, I’m a teacher. I look for the good in people. I was sure I could fix Heath. I mean, if I couldn’t, who could?
Heath insisted he could fix himself. He never entered a 12-step program— “I don’t need that, I can do it on my own”—yet eventually he managed a year of sobriety. I agreed to get married. Our wedding was three months after Rylan’s ninth birthday. Heath moved back in with us, and we started talking about having another baby.
Then, one day, I noticed a pair of skis missing from our storage shed.
“No idea,” Heath said when I asked where they went. “Maybe someone stole them?”
More things disappeared. Heath started coming home late again. I discovered thousands of dollars missing from our savings account. He fell back into the old cycle of drug use, promises to quit and relapse. Now that we were married and Rylan was old enough to want his dad in his life, I found it harder to leave. I did everything I could to get Heath to quit.
I covered up for him with bosses. Lied to my parents and friends. Filled out job applications for him.
The end result of all that? A New Year’s Eve phone call from jail. And now here I was, pulling up to our condo in the rental car. I woke Rylan, and we went inside. The condo was a disaster. Dishes and food everywhere. Our Christmas tree tilted over in the living room.
I tucked Rylan in and collapsed on the couch. I felt alone. Terrified. “God, help me,” I whispered even though I hadn’t been to church in ages. Then I went to bed.
I woke up the next morning with the same pit in my stomach. But something had shifted. I knew what I had to do.
“Erin, where are you?” Heath said when he called. “When are you coming to bail me out?”
“I’m not bailing you out, Heath,” I said. “I’m not staying in Estes Park. I’m taking Rylan, and we’re moving to Washington. When you’re clean, you can call me and we can talk. But I can’t take this anymore. I’m leaving you.”
Heath was angry, but I didn’t stay on the phone with him long enough to let him change my mind. I called my mom and told her everything. “About time!” she said.
I resigned my teaching job and started packing up the condo. Mom flew down to help out.
The day before my thirty-ninth birthday, I was unloading a rental truck into my mom and stepdad’s garage. It felt like the worst day of my life. My marriage was probably over. I had no job. No place to live. Rylan, desperate not to lose his father, was confused and angry, lashing out at my mom for encouraging us to move.
A few days later, I called Lynne, a friend and fellow teacher back in Colorado. Lynne’s son had struggled for years with addiction to opioids.
“I feel lost,” I told her. “I don’t even know if I did the right thing coming here. Rylan is furious. And I’m so depressed. I can barely get out of bed in the morning.”
“You were very brave,” Lynne said. “Maybe you should try going to Al-Anon. It’s really helped me.”
Lynne meant the 12-step program for loved ones of addicts based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. I didn’t know much about it, but I was willing to give it a try.
I said nothing at the first meeting I attended, just listened to stories that sounded like mine. Exactly like mine. The feelings if not the facts.
At the second meeting, I heard a word I’d never heard before: enabling. It meant helping an addict in all the wrong ways—ways that hurt not only you but the addict too, even if you think you are helping.
Was that what I’d been doing with Heath? Enabling his addiction? But I wanted him to get sober!
The more Al-Anon meetings I attended, working the 12 steps, the more I realized I’d been making mistakes from the minute I discovered that meth pipe in Heath’s jacket pocket. Again and again I’d let hope triumph over reality. Rather than committing Heath to God’s care and protecting myself and Rylan from the damage of my husband’s addiction, I’d tried to fix Heath. At Al-Anon I learned the hard truth that you can’t fix an addict. Only the addict—invoking the help of their higher power—has the ability to do that.
Heath called every day. I kept those calls brief—Heath was still mad. Then gradually, I noticed, things changed. Heath was routed into a drug court program that required him to attend a 12-step meeting every day. He checked into a 30-day residential rehab program. He went to church.
I found a church too, headed by a wonderful pastor named Abby, who was my age. Pastor Abby invited me out to coffee and encouraged me to join the women’s group. I sang in the choir. Rylan started school, joined a soccer team and made friends.
Heath began working the 12 steps. He made amends to Rylan and me and told me getting arrested was the best thing that could have happened to him because it forced him to take inventory of his life and addiction.
“I was so mad at you when you said you wouldn’t bail me out,” he said. “But that’s what saved me.”
I found a job teaching fourth grade. Rylan and I moved into a small house overlooking the ocean, and I spent a lot of prayer time walking along the water, my footsteps in the sand.
Near the end of his drug court program, Heath got permission to serve the last few months of his probation in Washington. He moved in with Rylan and me, and a year later he’s still here. Still sober.
A foundational principle of 12-step programs is One day at a time. Neither Heath nor I take his sobriety for granted. Relapse is always a threat. Each day we do what I did the night Heath got arrested—ask God for help. Addiction is a disease you can never turn your back on.
I know it was God, and only God, who gave me the courage to leave Heath. Only God could fix Heath. Like Heath said, my decision saved his life.
It also saved our marriage—and our family too.
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